It is an eternal truth that you have to understand the rules before you break them. In writing, there are some clichés that people just have seen too much of. Back in the good old days, when nobody had television and precious few even had books, you could tell a fairy-tale and keep your audience riveted, because they didn’t already know whether the Hero would win in the end or not. But in today’s world, every human being has seen and watched multiplied thousands of stories, and they have seen the same old things over, and over, and over again.
If you really want to get their attention, you have to do something a little different. In this article, we explore some of the main clichés and worn-out themes that keep cropping up, and we take a look at whether these old war-horses can be brought out of the stable one more time, or whether they should just be put to pasture.
For example, do NOT make a lost orphan prince who happens to be the last of the Royal Family who grows up as a humble baker’s boy. YAWWWWN. How many times have we read this one? It seems every other Fantasy writer out there has a lost prince (or princess) who was raised by wolves and has to discover who they are, go home and take back their Kingdom which was usually taken over by an Evil Pope or their weird smelly Uncle. How realistic is this? Really? It has almost NEVER happened in real history, so why should all the Fantasy stories be about this? The only reason anyone would write this plot is because the Author feels that they are really a lost orphan prince (or princess) who feels unappreciated and alone stuck in their crummy suburban house, and daydreams constantly of someday being discovered by a higher power and put in charge of something so the world can appreciate them. My advice: grow some flowers, get in shape, and be happy with who you are before you start writing.
In the same vein, do NOT write yet another Cinderella story. You may be a single woman looking for true love, but the rest of the world doesn’t have to know about it.
Do NOT write Robin Hood yet again. We know you are sick of your boss at work and the IRS, and pretty much all authority in the world doesn't mean the Noble Bandit idea is at all realistic. If you study history, the real Robin Hoods were pretty criminal and somewhat evil. If you start breaking laws, you will keep breaking laws until you get into things like rape and murder, and at that point you really aren't admirable. Stick to reality here; read the Consequences article for more about this one.
And please, PLEASE no more “The One” Messianic stories full of old moldy prophecies! You are not The One, and your Me Character is not The One either!
Stay away from Magica the Magic-Girl who was born with some weird, abnormal power; nobody likes following a Hero that has everything given to them magically at birth and can melt the universe with a sneeze. These always end up really spoiled, really fast, and then your readers just want them to die.
In fact, the weaker your character is (the underdog) and disadvantaged, with problems and faults, the more your reader will be cheering for them to win!
By the way, why are we always Saving the World? Why does the struggle always have to be the Fate of Humanity? This big-issue plot tends to get really repetitive, because we know it is so unrealistic that nobody can believe in your plot. We will be far more interested in a plot where the Hero is fighting to save something more personal, something realistic ... like his job. His respectability in the eyes of his girlfriend. His reputation at the Family Reunion. And if you don’t think there is any possibility for suspense and tension and edge-of-seat action in that kind of plot, you need to get out and live a little. I was once trapped in a Missionary base in Papua New Guinea for over a year with no food and way to get back to America. Now THAT is suspense!
Why do the good guys in Science Fiction (and D&D style fantasy) stories always have to be human? Why are the aliens/monsters always the bad guys? Maybe there are no humans. What would you do then? Make some stories about other races, totally different species! We saw some really fun takes on alternate good-guy species with books like the Borrowers! There were humans all over, but the real characters were these little tiny three inch people who lived under the floorboards! See, now THAT is fun.
And please, PLEASE don’t write about petulant Villains who just want to blow up the world because they are a meanine-head! Please read the Villains article for more on this subject! Talking about Villains, please skip the Flash Gordon Emperor Ming style guy with the glossy black skullcap and black pointy fingernails, okay? What you played in that D&D campaign in High School does not have to survive to make it to press.
And your Hero does NOT have to become famous for what he does!
The Hero does not have to have an opposite-gender love interest who follows them around for no other reason than the fact that they are wildly attracted and wish to worship the Hero/Heroinne as a sex-idol. Obviously this one is a personal fantasy of most Authors, but it doesn't belong in a story. If you are going to have a romance, make sure it is developed as a real relationship (see the Romance Engine article for more about this), and remember, your love interest does NOT have to be super-sexy to be lovable!
In the same vein, the Hero does NOT need to be followed around by a fawning mass of groupies who are only there to stroke his ego. If they have no point in the plot, get rid of them. Remember: following the Hero just because they are “friends” is NOT a reason for them to be there. It just makes your Hero seem like a super-needy insecure person who can’t be alone with himself.
And NEVER, NEVER, NEVER fall back on techno-babble!! Or for Fantasy books, magic-babble! If the Hero was saved as a child because his mama loved him, and that is why the Villain crumbles to dust in the end, that makes NO SENSE. It doesn’t fit into the story, and this gimmick will never be used again. The only way to destroy the badguy at the end should be something we’ve seen several times, used throughout the story, that has a perfectly logical and understandable explanation. Then you feel that it was the Hero's great bravery and determination that did the trick, not some kind of lame author-cheat.
If, after all of this, you HAVE to use one of these clichés for some reason, then at least make something in the story really unusual and strange. Sometimes breaking the rules works really, really well: it can be extremely funny to make a kind of spoof of one of the clichés. I myself have written a Baker Boy story, to my great shame, but it turned out to be one of the funniest (and fun) stories I ever wrote... look for Sabatton in the Stories section (coming soon to a website near you!). And now that you know the rules, go ahead and break them.